Op-ed: An Afro-Indigenous Approach to Agriculture and Food Security | Civil Eats

Op-ed: An Afro-Indigenous Approach to Agriculture and Food Security

leah penniman

This essay is adapted from a keynote talk given at the Bioneers 2020 Conference.

My ancestral grandmothers in West Africa braided seeds of okra, molokhia, and levant cotton into their hair before being forced to board Transatlantic slave ships. They hid sesame, black-eyed peas, rice, and melon seeds in their locks. They stashed away amara kale, gourds, sorrel, basil, tamarind, and cola in their tresses. The seed was their most precious legacy, and they believed against odds in a future of tilling and reaping the earth; they believed that we—their descendants—would exist and that we would receive and honor the gift of the seed.

With the seed, our grandmothers also braided their eco-systemic and cultural knowledge. They braided the wisdom of sharing land, labor, and wealth. They braided the wisdom of caring for the sacred Earth, with practices such as building the dark earth compost of Ghana, the raised beds of the Ovambo people, and the polycultures of Nigeria.

But when our ancestors arrived on this continent, they encountered a very different system of relating to land and food. Here, the land was not shared but stolen and privatized. Led by the white Christian Doctrine of Discovery, settlers murdered millions of Indigenous people, displaced those who survived, and laid claim to their land.

Our African ancestors learned that even when they tried to own land, they were punished. Despite the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule after emancipation, Black farmers purchased nearly 16 million acres of land. Almost all of that land is now gone. Not only did white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Caps murder over 4,000 Black land owners, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture also systematically discriminated against Black farmers, leading to foreclosures and evictions.Today, approximately 95 percent of the agricultural land in the U.S. is white-owned.

When they arrived, our ancestors found that it was not just land that was exploited—it was also people. Millions of agricultural experts were kidnapped from their homes across Africa, forced into bondage to build the wealth of this nation. Even after chattel slavery officially ended, the exploitation of labor morphed into new forms, such as convict leasing. Southerners created new laws called the “Black Codes,” which criminalized loitering and unemployment and, as a result, filled prisons with Black people who were rented back to plantations—a system that continues to this day.

The Black people who were not forced onto the plantation through incarceration were trapped there as sharecroppers in a perpetual cycle of debt and poverty. Even today, farmworkers are not protected by basic labor laws and do not have the right to a day off, overtime pay, collective bargaining, or other protections. Approximately 85 percent of farm labor is performed by people of color, often undocumented. Today, farm ownership is one of the whitest professions in the U.S., while farm work is among the brownest.

Our ancestors learned that the food system here was not about honoring the earth, but rather about extracting her resources. Industrial agriculture had burned up 50 percent of the soil carbon, catalyzing climate change and devastating biodiversity.

Despite the heartbreak and terror that those ancestors experienced, there were those in every generation who remembered the seeds they had inherited and the wisdom carried in those seeds. Fannie Lou Hamer remembered cooperative land ownership and cooperative labor when she created the Freedom Farm in Mississippi with other sharecroppers. So did Charles and Shirley Sherrod when they created the first ever community land trust in Georgia.

Dr. George Washington Carver, one of the founders of the regenerative and organic agriculture movements, remembered right relationship with land. So did Booker T. Whatley, one of the progenitors of the farm-to-table movement and diversified small farms. Carver spread the word about caring for soil and community through the first extension agency out of Tuskegee University, inspiring a whole generation of organic farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Black Panther Party remembered right relationship to our human communities when they fed 20,000 children free breakfasts every morning, catalyzing the public school food programs. And so did the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the National Black Farmers Association, and the Land Loss Prevention Project, as they fought for the rights of Black farmers and farmworkers who have struggled to save their land over the years.

When I started farming over 24 years ago, I began to wonder: How could I honor the legacy of the seeds braided into my ancestors’ hair? Could I help create a farm based on the wisdom carried in those seeds?

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In 2010, Soul Fire Farm was born with a mission to reclaim our ancestral belonging to land and to end racism and exploitation in the food system. What began as a small family farm is now a community organization committed to this systemic and ancestral change. And we pray that the words from our mouths, the meditations in our hearts, and the work of our hands are all acceptable to our grandmothers who passed us these seeds.

We got to work regenerating 80 acres of land through Afro-Indigenous farming and forestry practices, we began sharing the harvest at no cost for people impacted by state violence, and we have been supporting families in building their own self-sufficiency gardens. We got to work equipping the next generation of Black and Brown farmers through training, mentorship, and connection to resources. We got to work using the land as a tool, to heal from the trauma of centuries of land-based oppression, recognizing that, for many of us, the land was the scene of the crime, even though she wasn’t the criminal. We got to work creating natural buildings using straw bales, cob, solar energy, cluster development and energy efficient design. We put the land into a cooperative, giving nature rights and a vote on the council, and returning land rights to the Mohican people through a cultural respect easement.

We wondered if one small farm could help make a big change, and we are excited by the progress we’ve made using the regenerative farming practices that we inherited from Carver, Hamer, and the Ovambo people, and the progress in the larger movement.

We have restored the soil here on this mountainside to its pre-colonial levels of organic matter, and increased native biodiversity. We have witnessed neighbors across the capital region of New York pitching in to cover the cost of vegetable deliveries to those in need, allowing hundreds of people to receive a weekly share of fresh food. We have seen the power of small, localized food systems—which were able to turn on a dime when COVID hit—to keep people fed. We have seen thousands of new Indigenous, Black, and Brown farmers and food justice activists get trained in 35 states, and the majority of them go on to make powerful waves in the food system. And, for the first time since the early 1900s, the ag census recorded a small increase in the number of Indigenous farmers.

Our alumni even catalyzed the creation of a new land trust to share land back with people who’ve been dispossessed, as well as a reparations map to return stolen wealth to Earth stewards for their crucial work. And we’re building powerful networks with Black Farmers United New York, Heal Food Alliance, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance to get at the root cause of exploitation of the Earth and those who tend and care for her. Together with these regional, national, and international networks, we’re changing the conversation about food and land.

And folks are finally listening. From presidential candidates to major media outlets, society is waking up to the fact that we cannot have a healthy food system if we ignore racial justice or if we ignore the health of the land. We are in the midst of an uprising and we have entered a portal to something ancient and new.

But the question is: Are you willing to carry on the seeds of sovereignty and fight for the rights of all people to carry on those seeds? Or will you let them die out? Beyond the great unraveling, what will you do to weave a world anew?

My daughter, Nashima, talks about the food system as everything it takes to get sunshine onto your plate. Every aspect of that system—land, labor, capital, ecology, food itself—needs to be infused with justice. And the good news with such a wide arc of possibility is that there are so many ways to engage. For some of us, the right answer is reparations; it’s giving back resources to those who’ve been dispossessed. For others it might be returning land to Indigenous people, handing deeds over to tribal governments and Native organizations. Others might advocate for policy, like the Justice for Black Farmers Act or the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. And others who run or work for institutions with purchasing power might be sourcing food from Black, Indigenous, and people of color producers, or transferring our institutional resources, power, and dignity to Black, Indigenous, and people of color leadership.

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A powerful story illustrates this from the Haudenosaunee community. The people of the Long House were dropping from hunger in the long winter months. Three sisters arrived at their door. One of them was dressed in green, another in yellow, and another in orange. Disguised as beggars, they asked the people for food. And because they were generous of heart, the people handed over the last scrapings of their bowls to feed these strangers. Touched by that generosity, the sisters revealed themselves as corn, beans, and squash—the basis of the three sisters milpa garden. The corn grows tall and provides starch and niacin for the people, the bean sister winds around her older sister and provides nitrogen for the soil and protein for the people, and squash, laying low on the grounds, shades out weeds and provides vitamins and fats in the seeds so the people would never go hungry again.

The powerful thing is that Indigenous folks of Turtle Island shared these seeds, these three sisters, widely, with settlers who did not have their interests at heart, and did not understand the covenant with the sisters. Now corn, or maize, has been pulled apart from squash and beans to be grown in monocultures. This 8,700-year-old synergy of teosinte and Mayan hands has been weaponized, turned into industrial animal feed and corn syrup, fueling diabetes in our communities, and driving climate change. They appropriated and scandalized our seed heritage, commodified our sacred foods, violated the law of sharing, and ripped her away from her sisters.

My belief is that the work of this moment is to return maize, both literally and metaphorically, to her sisters—to restore the covenant, restore the polyculture, and put carbon back in the soil while honoring our ancient and powerful ways.

In the words of Pablo Neruda: “Pardon me if when I want to tell the story of my life, it’s the land I talk about. This is the land. It grows in your blood, and you grow. If it dies in your blood, you die out.”

Leah Penniman lives in Grafton, New York, where she is the co-director of Soul Fire Farm. She’s the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Her areas of leadership at Soul Fire include youth educational programming, international solidarity with Haitian farmers, food justice organizing, teaching aerial silk trapeze, and anything that involves heavy lifting, sweat, and soil. Read more >

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  1. This is wonderful. I have been interested in organic ggrowing for 50 years. I think we all need to work together to achieve harmony in nature and our food. Even tho I am white, all races and cultures need to work together. It may take reparations to level the playing field, but that is the future.

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